Thank you very much to Sara Hills, for judging the 2023 October Award. Her excellent and indepth comments on the process and all five stories are below.
It was an absolute honor to be invited to judge the twenty-fifth round of the Bath Flash Fiction Award. Twenty-five rounds is such an achievement and a testament to the longevity of flash fiction, the depth and breadth and enduring love of the form. A huge thank you to Jude Higgins, director of the Bath Flash Fiction Award, for the enormity of her contributions to the flash fiction community.
When Jude invited me to judge this round of the award, it’s fair to say that I hadn’t prepared myself for stories filled with so much death. Death by suicide. Death in old age. Death of the earth. The undead. Dead children. Dead lovers. Beaten-to-death dogs and glue-trapped mice and ghosts of all kinds.
But the beautiful thing about art and language is that they are often an artefact of the time and circumstance we find ourselves in—wars, pandemic, mass shootings, climate change—not to mention seasonally, with the senescence of nature and the veil between worlds thinned. While the overwhelming majority of longlisted stories focused on or featured some element of death, there was humor too, playfulness, sexually-transmitted and other diseases, addictions, a focus on food and family, history lessons, love, grief, and in some cases, only near deaths.
I spent a long while with the fifty longlisted stories, holding my breath as I read, reveling in the wide range of characterizations, voices, settings, and structures. I let myself fall in love with these stories, reading and rereading, until I forced myself to narrow the list down, little by little, keeping only those stories which held something a bit more inside them. Once I found my shortlist of twenty, I let them sit for a few days, simmering, so I could return with fresh eyes, allowing these stories to devastate me anew.
Judging a competition of this standard is a curious thing, both a tremendous joy and a terrible hardship. Other judges have remarked that on other days and in other moods, they may have chosen differently. And I couldn’t agree more. Primarily, a judge considers attention to craft and story, but beyond that it’s highly subjective. From one reading to the next, these stories often shifted in the rankings. Some held fast from the beginning while others surprised me by giving more, deepening with each reading. It’s a lot to ask of a story, to hold up to multiple readings and scrutiny. To stay impactful or to grow.
Making my final choices for the top five was more difficult than I had imagined, and several times I wished there were more prize-winning places to assign. In the end, the winning stories not only demonstrated an extra level of craft but were those I found emotionally impactful. However, I would be remiss not to give a special mention to a few shortlisted stories I can’t stop thinking about: How My Mother Loves (for making me cry), Beans (for the sensory details), and Milk (such a wonderful voice), as well as my appreciation for the political stories Britain, Britain, Britain and Free Ice Cream on a Sweltering September Day (each was timely and original).
Congratulations to everyone who took the gamble of sending in an entry, to everyone fortunate enough to longlist or shortlist in this competition, and to the top five writers whose stories occupied my waking hours like a haunting, pulling me back into their worlds again and again. Thank you all for trusting me with your work.
First place: Détente
I had chills every time I read this story. The first loaded sentence underpins the entire piece, giving us the situation, the stakes, the mother’s fear of the very real generational effects of parental suicide. There’s a quiet attention to craft that’s in such service to the story it never gets in the way, including the clever repetition of “because” that leads us in and the build that comes from employing the rule of three. The sensory line “the scrape of wire on wood, the rustle” is one I could feel in my throat. There’s an honest sense of anger as well as loss, which hits harder against the humor of “Life is hard, tacos help,” and the mother’s dialogue sequence. What I admired most is the character arc in this story. It’s an absolutely stunning piece.
Second place: Butterfly Effect
This piece won me over on successive readings, as it flits from the present action of a girl’s suicide to the effects it has on those around her. Stories of such a brutal subject matter are hard to do well without veering into messages of morality, but this author employed craft to great effect—using second person and leaning heavily on that title which asks the reader to think about the effects of one person’s actions on others. Not just the suicide, but the possible causal events that led up to it. I love the rhythm of this breathless form, the onomatopoeia of the word “sluicing”, the fresh language “rolodexing their heads”, and the gorgeous final imagery that lifts an utterly devastating story, tying it back to the title.
Third place: Murmuration
This is a curious and original flash with an incredible voice that, although devoid of death, haunted me. The premise is quiet and simple—a mother watching a nanny care for her toddler— but I kept returning to the mystery of it, the voyeuristic quality and dreamlike nature imagery as we observe the nanny nourishing the child. It subverts the trope of the bad nanny by giving us an overly suspicious narrator with an accusatory tone: “that’s what she did to him,” and “These agencies make stuff up.” I kept returning to this one in the quiet hours, mulling it over, questioning the intentions and psychology of both mother and nanny, the juxtaposed qualities of play and distrust or jealousy that culminates with that perfect ending.
Highly commended: Train to the Last Iceberg
The desolation of this piece held me from the first reading. It has such a cinematic feel—the zooming in on “the giraffe’s black tongue (which) licks, and licks, and licks” and the small hand that nestles into the narrator’s own. I love the structure of it, how scenes from the zoo bookend the dark of the kiddie train tunnel and the introspection and tension the darkness allows, as well as the raw honesty and relatability of the voice. It also uses a repetition of negation (no-no-no) to great effect. Another strength in this piece is the inclusion of climate change, which only adds to the helpless desperation of the narrator to try to make things right. It’s a terrific piece of work.
Highly commended: The Burial of Mrs. Charles D. Jackson
As a counterpoint to the dreariness of death, this story pointed toward what comes after. It carried a welcome hopefulness with it, juxtaposing the scents of ham hock collard greens with honeyed cantaloupe. The opening sentence, on successive readings, evokes imagery of engraved tombstones and a familiar inevitability of death, a resignation, that the narrator subverts. I love the closeness second person POV provides, the hard-hitting line, “was there no end to the world’s expectations of a woman” as well as the specificity—the women viewed as a “plague of grackles”, her “crepitating knees”, and the “sweating glass of iced tea”. The gossamer lightness at the end adds an extra lift to the title, begging the question, after the compromises made in 61-years of marriage, who will she become now?